Sue Ashby is a writer, playwright, script writer and also co-directs the Dorset Writers’ Network which aims to support and encourage writers from across Dorset. She was recently kind enough to answer some questions for us at Storyslingers.
Welcome, Sue! First, can you tell us about what you write, and what you’re working on at the moment?
I have written poetry, short stories (children’s story published by Scholastic in WOW 366 anthology), and a teenage novel unpublished because there’s too much sex in it! My first love was playwriting and I had 4 Afternoon Theatres BBC Radio 4 transmitted, episodes of Families and Coronation Street, was a story liner on Families, and had 10+ plays produced for professional theatre in and around Manchester.
Currently I am writing Bride Ship, a full-length play about the forced emigration of young women to British Columbia during the 1862 recession to provide wives for prospecting gold miners.
Do you plot your stories, or are you more of a seat-of-the-pants writer? Can you tell us about the process of beginning a story?
As a former TV storyliner I do plot my dramas and also plotted my novel although it was very much visually/location-led. Often with a short story I know I have a limited word count so a tight structure is important. I love it when characters in a drama start to take control and take me somewhere I hadn’t dreamt of going…
Is there anything you particularly find challenging when working on a new piece?
Giving myself enough time for total immersion. Finding characters’ voices. Writing for theatre requires big bold images and working towards those moments is always a challenge.
How do you manage your creative time alongside your work/daily life?
I work hard raising funding for various organisations like DWN and Juno Theatre. so sometimes I’m up against a deadline which takes my eye off the ball.
Criticism is virtually impossible to avoid when you’re putting things out for public consumption. What are some of the toughest criticisms you’ve dealt with, and how have they helped (or hindered) you in the long-run?
I prefer to use the word ”feedback”. Having belonged to many writers’ groups over the years I have greatly benefited from being part of a reading and writing community. I have experienced nothing but creative growth from working with producers, directors, dramaturgs and my MA group at Bath Spa. Of course it is important to give fair feedback from a position of goodwill and wanting to support other writers – e.g. saying what works in the piece before what doesn’t.
A lot of new authors go into writing and publishing wearing rose-tinted glasses, but the industry is rarely as smooth sailing as it seems from the outside. What are some of your biggest disillusionments with writing and/or publishing?
It has got harder over the years to sell plays or get commissions – as the business became more and more producer-led. (I had a lot of success in the 1980’s through to 2000 mainly in Manchester, the North West and Northern Ireland.) That was very much to do with a writer-led community that was well-resourced by North West Arts. Now I’m finding a resurgence of that energy in writing for theatre in Salisbury and surrounding districts, supported by theatre practitioners in the south west. I’m very committed to theatre because it gives that opportunity to write, get a group of actors together and just do it either at the developmental or completed stages. Somehow writers can be more in control. Just as we can through self-publishing e-books.
Tell us about some of your biggest influences? Which writers have inspired you throughout your career, and what lessons have you taken from their work?
I’m a great fan of YA fiction – David Almond, Julia Green, Linda Newbury (YA writers). I recently saw amazing plays by prize-winning women playwrights Lolita Chakrabarti, Lucy Kirkwood, Lynn Nottage & Jessica Swale. Juno Theatre is an all women’s theatre company redressing the imbalance of women in the theatre (writers, designers, directors); only 17% of plays produced in London are by women (even less in the provinces).
You are one of the founders of the Dorset Writers’ Network, an invaluable project to writers from all walks of life in the Dorset area. Care to talk a little bit about it? How did it come about, and what have been some of the highlights in running the DWN?
I ran a project called Making Connections: writing for health & well-being where I set up three workshop sessions in 15 different venues across Dorset – many in rural communities. And out of this came a core of writing groups who wanted to carry on running their sessions after receiving some training. Then we got £10K from the lottery and spent a year running networking sessions to find out what members wanted, three training days and lots of author events always with the emphasis being experiential.
Highlights: A Publishing Day in Dorchester, workshops with Nell Leyshon & Sarah Duncan which were so well attended, working with two groups of young adults with learning disabilities for the first time and loving it, and seeing so many groups take off (often for different reasons – friendship, therapy, developing writing skills to the point of publication) and still together today.
And finally, what’s on the creative horizon for you? Are there any projects you’re working on right now that you’d like to talk about?
I’m getting my play Bride Ships out there soon and if no-one takes it up I’m planning to go to Edinburgh with it next year. I’m completing a two-hander and sending that out and writing short plays for various theatre and fringe events.
Plus getting the next DWN development – Dorset’s Digital Stories – on the road.
Thank you so much for chatting to us today!
If you’d like to find out more about the Dorset Writers’ Network’s upcoming events, check out their blog.